People like to be flowery in their language. I myself am known to pursue a policy of sesquipedalian loquaciousness on occasion. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is important that you do so correctly. Otherwise your attempt to sound intelligent will either cause you to sound like an idiot or perpetuate that idiocy by leading others to imitate you. That probably explains why certain phrases have wandered wildly off course. Since I evidently have nothing better to do than rant about such things, today I’m going to tackle one of the phrases that I’ve almost never heard used correctly. “To a fault.”
I don’t know about you, but nearly every time I hear that phrase, it is a part of a long sequence of complements. “Oh, Jake. Oh, he’s great. Funny, thoughtful, generous to a fault.” At some point, people started to think that saying someone was generous to a fault meant that they were generous absolutely all of the time no matter what. Just look at the actual words, though: To A Fault. In other words, “Until it is a bad thing.” If this guy was actually generous to a fault, it would be time for an intervention. He’d have given away every penny in his savings and loaned his car to a hobo. A pedophile is “good with children to a fault.” Someone who is honest to a fault is a blunt, brutal critic of those around him. Unless these are the qualities you are trying to communicate, you really shouldn’t be flagging the trait as faulty.
There are all sorts of good things that, when taken to an extreme, are a bad thing. That’s why this phrase got started. Just make sure you use it only to indicate when they are overdoing it. Either that, or pick a more entertaining phrasing. For example:
Susan is hideously thoughtful.
Roger is homicidally friendly.
John is such a good cook, he’s the antichrist.
Mary’s singing voice makes me want to vomit rainbow kittens.
I particularly like that last one. The next time someone does something you like, tell them it made you want to vomit rainbow kittens. The response is almost never immediate. It tends to get stuck in the mental gears. If you watch closely, you can actually see the thought processes as they occur. “Um… okay. Vomit is bad, but rainbows and kittens are good. I guess that means that… overall, it is a positive statement. So… Thank you?” (Originally I was going to say “Fart Chocolate Puppies” but the visual that went along with that one pitched it a little too far into the negative column.)
All of this talk about virtue to excess makes me wonder, though. Is there such a thing as suffering from a negative trait so severely that it is actually a good thing? Joey Chestnut, competitive eater extraordinaire, is gluttonous to a virtue, I suppose. And Dexter is homicidal to a virtue. Politicians pretty much don’t get elected until they are dishonest to a virtue. Likewise for actors. It is actually much harder to make a bad trait a good one than to make a good trait a bad one, so this really ought to be a much more popular phrase, as far as I’m concerned. If a guy manages to be misogynistic to a virtue, after all, he deserves to be congratulated… Though I guess playboy photographers achieve that pretty regularly…
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people should keep messing with the language. If you use “to a fault” in a strictly positive fashion, feel free to keep doing it. The chances are pretty good that the person you’re talking to gets the point. Plus, if everyone keeps using it that way, eventually it will officially change the meaning. It wouldn’t be the first time a word or phrase has pulled a complete 180. Just look at the word terrific. It used to mean the same thing as horrific, now we use it in ad campaigns talking about how great trees are. If we are lucky, in a few generations we’ll be able to completely invert the English language. It would certainly make reading classic literature confusing.* And that’s a noble goal.
* Well, most of it, anyway. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and War and Peace both cancel themselves out.